Soon, autumn’s frost will bring an end to another Northwest Ohio growing season, but that doesn’t mean you have to wait until the spring thaw to indulge your green thumb. Flowering houseplants, if thoughtfully selected and properly cared for, are a great way to satisfy your craving for color and fight off cabin fever during the upcoming cold months.
But before you head for the flower shop or greenhouse to purchase those blooming beauties, keep in mind that in order for a plant to prosper in your home, it must be able to adapt to low winter light levels or thrive under artificial lighting. It must also be able to endure the relatively high heat and low humidity common in most homes in winter. A modest amount of effort on your part to approximate a plant’s natural growing conditions will go a long way toward ensuring its survival. Before buying any plant, be sure to research its unique growing requirements.
Some houseplants are capable of blooming almost nonstop and may live for many years. Examples include African violets and wax begonias. African violets produce a profusion of quarter-sized blossoms ranging in color from the familiar purple to shades of pink, blue, or white. Wax begonias have oval, waxy green or reddish leaves with small flowers in colors of salmon pink, white, or rose.
Plants like the Christmas cactus and zebra plant may only bloom through winter, but they earn their keep year round through their attractive foliage. The Christmas cactus sends out chains of beautiful dark-green, elliptical leaves that, as the plant’s common name suggests, produce blooms around the end of December. The striped foliage of the zebra plant is sure to catch the eye.
Kalanchoe is another popular cold-season bloomer. It produces tiny four-petaled blossoms in red, orange, coral, gold, or yellow that almost completely obscure the waxy foliage. The flowers can persist for weeks. Like the poinsettia, kalanchoe requires 14 hours of uninterrupted darkness each day for several weeks to bring the plant back into bloom, so many people opt to discard their kalanchoe plant after the blooms fade and buy another one the following Christmas.
Bromeliads are a favorite that can be purchased in bloom year-round. Keep the “cup” in the center of the plant filled with water and sparingly water the growing medium for best results. As the old plant dies back, it will be replaced by the offset growing next to the flower spike, so you can enjoy your bromeliad for many years.
If you’re looking for some temporary winter color, now is the time to buy spring bulbs, such as tulips and narcissus, for indoor forcing. Or, if the effort of forcing doesn’t appeal to you, you can wait until winter and buy potted bulbs that have already been forced into bloom. Forced bulbs can make it seem like spring indoors if only for a short time. However, once they go out of bloom, the forced bulbs aren’t good for much except the compost bin.
These are just a few of the options available to you. You might want to take a trip to your local florist’s shop or garden center to discover other options. Whatever you choose, be sure to familiarize yourself with each plant’s watering, lighting, and fertilizing needs as these requirements will vary considerably from plant to plant.
If you’re fortunate enough to have abundant natural lighting in your home, all you need to do is familiarize yourself with the specific lighting needs of the plants you wish to keep and position them accordingly. Otherwise, it may be necessary to supplement the natural illumination with artificial grow lights. Garden center personnel can help you determine the type and duration of lighting that’s best for your plants.
With respect to feeding, flowering houseplants generally benefit from a fertilizer with a higher percentage of phosphorous, for example 15-30-15 (the three-number analysis on any fertilizer package indicates the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium respectively). Again, consult with garden center staff to determine an appropriate feeding schedule for the plant/plants you intend to keep.
When it comes to watering, you have the option of three techniques: from the top down, from the bottom up, and by immersing the entire pot. The appropriate technique will vary depending on circumstances. For example, top watering is fine when there is ample light and air circulation to prevent the plant’s crown (where the plant’s growth emerges at the soil level) from molding.
Plants that prefer a constantly moist soil, like azaleas, can be watered from the bottom by placing the pot in a water-filled saucer or via a glass-fiber wick inserted into the bottom of the pot. However, if you use this method exclusively, fertilizer salts in the soil may rise to the surface and accumulate there, forming a crusty buildup and potentially burning the plant’s foliage. Occasionally watering from the top will help prevent this buildup.
The third method is total immersion of the pot. This method is recommended when a plant’s soil has completely dried out, and most plants seem to benefit from the occasional use of this technique. Simply submerge the pot in a pail of tepid water until the water rises above the soil level in the pot. Keep the pot submerged until air bubbles no longer escape from the soil. Then, drain it thoroughly and replace the pot in its saucer. Remember, a plant’s demand for water depends on several factors, including temperature, humidity, and the plant’s life cycle. You may need to modify your watering technique and schedule accordingly.
If your “green thumb” is starting to itch as the leaves begin to fall, why not surround yourself with a selection of winter bloomers? With a little effort, you can enjoy a taste of spring all winter long!